Kipling’s Burden

In the years leading up to 1914, Rudyard Kipling may have spoken out and waved the flag for what he believed to be a necessary and inevitable war (“What stands if freedom fall? / Who dies if England live?”), but he paid dearly for his own integrity. His own 18-year-old son, John, went off to war and died on his second day in France, after his father pulled strings so that he might “do his bit” as they both so clearly wanted him to. His eldest daughter Josephine had previously died of illness at age six. In the words of John’s mother, Carrie:

One can’t let one’s friends’ and neighbours’ sons be killed in order to save us and our son. There is no chance John will survive unless he is so maimed from a wound as to be unfit to fight. We know it and he does. We all know it, but we all must give and do what we can and live on the shadow of a hope that our boy will be the one to escape.

Kipling memorialized his son directly in the poem My Boy Jack and, indirectly if no less devastatingly, in another poem, The Children. The events surrounding John’s death also inspired writer-actor David Haig to write a play that has since been turned into a television film (now available on DVD). Despite one surviving daughter, Kipling would have no grandchildren, so his children’s stories would be read by other people’s children to their children.

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